Taiwan's fallen Nationalists rebuilding
By Richard Halloran
TAIPEI, Taiwan — The Kuomintang, or Nationalist Party, of Taiwan has just moved from its imposing, spacious headquarters on a broad avenue close to the Presidential Office Building to more modest quarters in a different part of this capital.
The shift is emblematic of the effort by the party, widely known as the KMT, to revitalize itself after having fallen on hard times politically and financially. Says the party chairman, Ma Ying-jeou: "I am hoping to transform the party from an authoritarian, corrupt party to a clean and efficient party."
The KMT ruled Taiwan, often with an iron hand, from 1949, when Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek's forces fled to Taiwan after being defeated by Mao Zedong's Communists, until 2000. Its former headquarters near the presidential office suggested that the KMT was synonymous with Taiwan's government.
Then the KMT lost two presidential elections, in 2000 and 2004, to the Democratic Progressive Party led by President Chen Shui-bian. He is a native Taiwanese who appealed to the Taiwanese majority rather than to those who took haven from the mainland and their offspring. And the KMT was splintered by quarreling internal factions.
Although the KMT and its allies have a slim majority in the national legislature, they have acquired a reputation for unrelenting opposition since they lost the presidency. Even some of the KMT's old guard lament that image. "All they have done for six years," says a senior member, "is oppose, oppose, oppose."
Financially, the party once known as "KMT Inc." for its wealth, estimated at $2 billion to $10 billion, has seen its bank accounts shrink. Ma was reluctant in an interview to say where the money had gone other than to suggest that it had been squandered.
Perhaps most important, the KMT has long been seen as the party of the mainlanders who arrived in 1949 and has been left behind as native Taiwanese have moved into business, the government bureaucracy, the universities and newspapers, and finally into politics.
To reverse the KMT's fortunes, Ma and his associates have sold the headquarters to a private firm and cut the staff to 900 from a high of 4000. They have closed the party's newspaper, Central Daily News, because it was steadily losing money.
Ma, who is also mayor of Taipei, said the watchword from now on would be "frugality." When a visitor suggested that "frugality" was not usually associated with the KMT, Ma laughed but said it would be so in the future.
In particular, the KMT is seeking to erase the distinction between mainlanders and Taiwanese and to make itself over into a Taiwanese party. Ma noted that 70 percent of the party's members are locally born. Although his parents came from the mainland and he was born in Hong Kong, Ma said, "I consider myself to be Taiwanese."
A prominent supporter, Su Chi, a member of the legislature, reinforced that thought. "We are here to stay," he said, rejecting a KMT aspiration that they would one day return to the mainland. "We are Taiwanese."
Su noted: "The old guard is slowly fading away. Many young people have joined our party. This year, we may take in 50,000 new members, 60 percent of whom will be less than 40 years old." Ma contended that "young people are not polluted by that concept" of division between mainlanders and Taiwanese.
Su sketched out political allegiances today where the KMT and its allies are known as "pan-blue" and the DPP and its allies as "pan-green." Su said 20 percent of the voters are "deep blue," meaning they would always vote for the KMT. Another 30 percent are "light blue," leaning toward the KMT.
On the other side, 30 percent are "deep green," mostly Taiwanese who would always vote for the DPP. Another 20 percent are "light green," tilting toward the DPP. In this analysis, 50 percent of the voters are open to persuasion in the parliamentary elections late in 2007 or the presidential election in early 2008, when Ma may be the KMT candidate.
The KMT's revival appears to have started, as the party won handily in local elections last December, and again this spring. Ma will step down as mayor at the end of this year to concentrate on preparing for the coming elections.
Perhaps a subtle if inadvertent sign of the times: The new KMT headquarters is on Ba De Lu, which translates as the "Road of Eight Virtues." Not a bad location for a party in renaissance.
Richard Halloran is a Honolulu-based journalist and former New York Times correspondent in Asia. His column appears weekly in Sunday's Focus section.